New Jersey Muslim Student, School District Settle Lawsuit Over Church Graduation

A lawsuit on behalf of a Muslim honor student whose religious beliefs kept him from attending his high school graduation because the ceremony was held in a Baptist church has been settled.

Newark public schools apologized to the former student, Bilal Shareef, and his father and agreed not to hold future events inside houses of worship, under terms of the settlement announced Monday.

"I was forced to choose between honoring my education and my faith, and no one should be put in that position," Shareef said in a statement. "I'm proud I stood up for my beliefs, and I'm proud that my experience will keep other students from having to face the choices I did."

Shareef, now a college student, skipped his 2006 graduation from West Side High School because his religious beliefs prohibit him from entering buildings containing icons of God.

School officials said they had to hold the ceremony at New Hope Baptist Church in order to accommodate 250 graduating seniors.

Ed Barocas, the American Civil Liberties lawyer who represented Shareef, said an ACLU volunteer who called various locations around Newark was able to find a number of suitable alternatives.

"We're very pleased," Barocas said. "These are important policy changes to ensure that no student is made to feel like an outsider as Bilal was."

Barocas said the ACLU wrote a letter to the district in 2005, demanding the church-graduation practice cease after the parent of another student complained. The Shareefs complained after graduation was again held at the church the following year, and the ACLU filed suit on their behalf.

Messages left Monday afternoon with the Newark superintendent's and general counsel's offices were not immediately returned.